I spent Friday morning at the New York City Academy for Software Engineering, near Union Square. From the name, and the high-tech geometric logo, you might expect that this is an elite private or charter school, like Stuyvesant. That’s not an accident, but at the moment it’s far from the truth. Instead, AFSE is open to all incoming freshmen, subject only to random lottery. Demographically, the school looks a lot like the average New York City public school. (One difference: the number of students labeled white is 9%, lower than the 15% city-wide average.)
AFSE doesn’t have its own building. It shares a gorgeous WPA-era city school building with half a dozen other small high schools. While I was there, another school was having their graduation ceremony in the grand auditorium that takes up most of the first floor.
The event was billed as a hackathon, but in conventional terms it was more like a “pitch competition” without the competition. Students formed into teams, developed ideas for apps or websites on a theme (“the environment”), sketched those themes as “paper prototypes”, and then used moqup.com to make simple mockups of the user interfaces.
Three or four professionals were assigned to each classroom of 16 or so freshmen and sophomores. I floated from table to table, asking what students were thinking about, offering advice and encouragement, and sometimes just hanging and chatting (on topic) with students who seemed a bit unfocused. Overall, I was impressed. All the students, even the most distracted, put in serious effort and by lunchtime had an interactive mockup of a totally plausible website or app to help the environment.
Serious software engineering it is not, but it was a good reminder: if you’re looking for kids with motivation, inspiration, and imagination, they’re not hard to find. They’re everywhere.